A Young Kennedy, in Kushnerland, Turned Whistle-Blower
By Jane Mayer, The New Yorker
22 September 20
When Robert F. Kennedy’s grandson Max volunteered with Jared Kushner’s COVID-19 task force, he likened the Trump Administration’s pandemic response to “a family office meets organized crime, melded with ‘Lord of the Flies.’ ”
onths before Bob Woodward’s book “Rage” documented President Trump’s efforts to deceive Americans about the peril posed by Covid-19, Robert F. Kennedy’s twenty-six-year-old grandson tried to blow the whistle on the President’s malfeasance from an improbable perch—inside Trump’s coronavirus task force.
In April, Max Kennedy, Jr., despite having signed a nondisclosure agreement, sent an anonymous complaint to Congress detailing dangerous incompetence in the Administration’s response to the pandemic. On the phone recently from Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, Kennedy explained why he’d alerted Congress. “I just couldn’t sleep,” he said. “I was so distressed and disturbed by what I’d seen.”
How did a Kennedy end up in a sensitive role in the Trump Administration? After graduating from Harvard, in 2016, Kennedy did some time at consulting and investment firms; he planned to take the LSAT in March, but the pandemic cancelled it. At loose ends, he responded to a friend’s suggestion that he join a volunteer task force that Jared Kushner was forming, to get vital personal protective equipment, such as masks, to virus hot spots. Kushner, he was told, was looking for young generalists who could work long hours for no pay. “I was torn, to some extent,” Kennedy, a lifelong Democrat, said. “But it was such an unprecedented time. It didn’t seem political—it seemed larger than the Administration.” And he knew people who’d been sick. So in March he volunteered for the White House Covid-19 Supply-Chain Task Force, and drove to Washington.
On his first day, he showed up at the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and joined around a dozen other volunteers, all in their twenties, mostly from the finance sector and with no expertise in procurement or medical issues. He was surprised to learn that they weren’t to be auxiliaries supporting the government’s procurement team. “We were the team,” he said. “We were the entire frontline team for the federal government.” The volunteers were tasked with finding desperately needed medical supplies using only their personal laptops and private e-mail accounts.
As the days passed, and the death count climbed, Kennedy was alarmed at the way the President was downplaying the crisis. “I knew from that room that he was saying things that just weren’t true,” he said. Trump told the public that the government was doing all it could, but the P.P.E. emergency was being managed by a handful of amateurs. “It was the number of people who show up to an after-school event, not to run the greatest crisis in a hundred years,” Kennedy said. “It was such a mismatch of personnel. It was one of the largest mobilization problems ever. It was so unbelievably colossal and gargantuan. The fact that they didn’t want to get any more people was so upsetting.”
Kennedy believes that the Administration relied on volunteers in order to sidestep government experts and thereby “control the narrative.” He said that Brad Smith, one of the political appointees who directed the task force, pressured him to create a model fudging the projected number of fatalities; Smith wanted the model to predict a high of a hundred thousand U.S. deaths, claiming that the experts’ models were “too severe.” Kennedy said that he told Smith, “I don’t know the first thing about disease modelling,” and declined the assignment. (A spokesman said that Smith did not recall the conversation.) To date, nearly two hundred thousand Americans have died.
The volunteers were also instructed to prioritize requests from the President’s friends and supporters. According to Kennedy, the group paid special attention to Jeanine Pirro, the Fox News personality. Pirro, Kennedy said, was “particularly aggressive,” and demanded that masks be shipped to a hospital she favored. The volunteers were also told to direct millions of dollars’ worth of supplies to only five preselected distributors. Kennedy was asked to draft a justification for this decision, but refused. “Hundreds of people were sending e-mails every day offering P.P.E.,” he said, but no one in charge responded effectively. “We were super frustrated we couldn’t get the government to do more.”
In the end, the task force failed to procure enough equipment, leaving medical workers, including Kennedy’s cousin, to improvise by wearing garbage bags and makeshift or pre-worn masks. States were left to fend for themselves, bidding against one another for scarce supplies. Kennedy was disgusted to see that the political appointees who supervised him were hailing Trump as “a marketing genius,” because, Kennedy said they’d told him, “he personally came up with the strategy of blaming the states.” The response was in line with what Kennedy calls the White House mantra: that government doesn’t work, and “that the worst thing we could do was step on the toes of the private sector.”
Kushner came by the FEMA office a few times, once to ask the flailing volunteers what three things they most needed, and promising fixes by the end of the day. He had “an air of self-importance,” Kennedy recalled. “But I never saw a single thing that Kushner promised change.” After two or three weeks of growing distress, Kennedy wrote his complaint, addressing it to the House Oversight Committee, hoping that Congress would step in. Meanwhile, the task force stopped meeting in person, because a member tested positive for Covid-19. In April, Kennedy quit, and he has since gone to work on the Democrats’ 2020 election efforts. He decided to defy the N.D.A., which he does not think can legally stifle him from expressing his opinion, and he is featured in a new documentary, “Totally Under Control,” from the director Alex Gibney. Kennedy said, “If you see something that might be illegal, and cause thousands of civilian lives to be lost, a person has to speak out.” The Administration’s coronavirus response, he said, “was like a family office meets organized crime, melded with ‘Lord of the Flies.’ It was a government of chaos.”